Thursday, March 19, 2009

Album Review: Cursive-Mama, I'm Swollen

Something that's always baffled/annoyed me about mainstream music publications is that they're always looking for easy categorization. A couple results of this include the invention of "grunge" (anything halfway heavy originating in the Seattle area during the early to mid 90's) and "emo" (anything with clean electric guitars playing arpeggios, along with "heartfelt" lyrics). Bands not sounding anything alike were grouped together; thus, you have Nirvana and Pearl Jam under the same blanket, and Fugazi and Jimmy Eat World together under another. None of these aforementioned bands sound alike, yet, to make things easier on themselves (and the fat cats at the record labels who know nothing about music), they were thrown together for various reasons. Over the past decade or so, the "Omaha sound" has developed due to similar circumstances.

Any band without a completely mainstream sound coming out of (or recording in) Omaha, Nebraska since about 1997 has been put into this group. Sure, Bright Eyes and Cursive may have had some similarities in their formative years (Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes and Tim Kasher of Cursive even played together in a band, Commander Venus, early on), but have both since gone on to form separate identities. While Bright Eyes has settled into an alt-country groove, Cursive has taken a different approach. Starting with 2003's The Ugly Organ, they have continually pushed the creative envelope.

On their last two albums, the afformentioned The Ugly Organ and 2006's Happy Hollow, Cursive has twice redefined their sound. The Ugly Organ featured cello (courtesy of then-band member Gretta Cohn), while Happy Hollow brought a five-piece horn section to the forefront. Such dramatic changes could have been cause for spotty, at best, albums, but both were great in their own right. Both loose concept records, The Ugly Organ focused on the plights of an individual (an organist, oddly enough), while Happy Hollow told of the exploits of small town residents.

New release, Mama, I'm Swollen, finds the band tightening their sound, while sacrificing nothing in terms of creativity. First track, "In The Now" is a blistering, hard edge song with repeated lyrics. In "From The Hips", Tim sings "I'm at my best when I'm at my worst", and this statement sums up his lyrics perfectly. This guy writes some great music when he's obviously unhappy. Musically, the album is a grab bag, featuring hard rockers, the bands' usual "math rock" guitar parts in many places, and even some slow songs (including the great closer "What Have I Done?").

This being their sixth album, I find that Cursive is the type of band that is constantly challenging themselves to change, while still retaining a signature sound. While the "Omaha sound" may or may not exist, when albums this good are being produced as a result of it, I'm not gonna worry too much about it.

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